Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rehabilitating Neville Chamberlain's reputation

Seventy-five years ago, on Sept. 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact, handing portions of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler's Germany. Chamberlain returned to Britain to popular acclaim, declaring that he had secured "peace for our time." Today the prime minister is generally portrayed as a foolish man who was wrong to try to "appease" Hitler—a cautionary tale for any leader silly enough to prefer negotiation to confrontation.

But among historians, that view changed in the late 1950s, when the British government began making Chamberlain-era records available to researchers. ... "The evidence was so overwhelming," [historian David Dutton] says, that many historians came to believe that Chamberlain "couldn't do anything other than what he did" at Munich. Over time, Dutton says, "the weight of the historiography began to shift to a much more sympathetic appreciation" of Chamberlain.

First, a look at the military situation. Most historians agree that the British army was not ready for war with Germany in September 1938. ... Time was on Britain’s side, [Colonel Hastings] Ismay argued, writing that delaying the outbreak of war would give the Royal Air Force time to acquire airplanes that could counter the Luftwaffe, which he considered the only chance for defeating Hitler. British strategists, including Ismay, believed their country could win a long war (so long as they had time to prepare for it). This was a common belief, and doubtless factored into Chamberlain's calculations. ...

Chamberlain’s diplomatic options were narrow as well. In World War I, Britain's declaration of war had automatically brought Canada, Australia, and New Zealand into the fight. But the constitutional status of those Commonwealth countries had changed in the interwar period. According to the British archives, it was far from clear that Chamberlain could count on the backing of these countries if war broke out with Germany over Czechoslovakia. ... Soviet Russia was seen as a potential enemy to be feared, not a potential ally. America's neutrality laws made it unlikely that even a willing president could bring the United States into the fight. There is also plenty of evidence in the archives that the British government had near-total disdain for the stability and fighting abilities of France, its only likely major-power ally. ...

Nor was the British public ready for war in September 1938. "It's easy to forget that this is only 20 years after the end of the last war," Dutton notes. British politicians knew that the electorate would never again willingly make sacrifices like the ones it had made in World War I. ...

Nor is the modern view of Hitler reflective of how the Nazi dictator was seen in the late 1930s. Blitzkrieg and concentration camps were not yet part of the public imagination. The British had already been dealing with one fascist, Benito Mussolini, for years before Hitler took power, and top British diplomats and military thinkers saw Hitler the way they saw Mussolini—more bravado than substance. Moreover, many Europeans thought German complaints about the settlement of World War I were legitimate. ... Hitler's merging of Austria and Germany seemed to be what many Austrians wanted. Even the demands for chunks of Czechoslovakia were seen, at the time, as not necessarily unreasonable—after all, many Germans lived in those areas.
--Nick Baumann, Slate, on a defense of Neville Chamberlain

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Luck and joy in scientific discovery

Dr. [David] Hubel and Dr. Wiesel liked to recall that their initial discovery about how vision works resulted from luck. Working in a tiny basement laboratory at Johns Hopkins, the pair struggled for days to coax brain cells in cats to respond to images of dark and light spots. Becoming increasingly frustrated, they waved their arms, jumped around, and, in a moment of levity, displayed images of glamorous women from magazines.

Then, as they shifted a slide in the opthalmoscope, a cell in the cat’s visual cortex suddenly started to fire. The edge of the slide had cast a straight, dark line on the animal’s retina. “It was what the cell wanted, and it wanted it, moreover, in just one narrow range of orientations,” Dr. Hubel said in his Nobel lecture.

They studied the cell for nine hours, and then, Dr. Wiesel recalled, ran down the hall screaming with joy.
--Denise Gellene, NYT, on a great moment in science

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bill Gates on control-alt-delete

Rubenstein also asked [Bill Gates] more trivial questions, such as why users must enter the command “control-alt-delete” to start up the Windows operating system. Gates began giving a technical explanation before pausing and admitting, “it was a mistake,” prompting laughter from the crowd.
--Nikita Kansra and Samuel Weinstock, Crimson, on a frank admission

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Smiling was historically considered uncouth

Today when someone points a camera at us, we smile. This is the cultural and social reflex of our time, and such are our expectations of a picture portrait. But in the long history of portraiture the open smile has been largely, as it were, frowned upon. ...

A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable. Miss La Creevy’s equivocal ‘smirks’ do however make more frequent appearances: a smirk may offer artists an opportunity for ambiguity that the open smile cannot. ...

It remains a commonly held belief that for hundreds of years people didn’t smile in pictures because their teeth were generally awful. This is not really true – bad teeth were so common that this was not seen as necessarily taking away from someone’s attractiveness. ...

Nonetheless, both painters and sitters did have a number of good reasons for being disinclined to encourage the smile. The primary reason is as obvious as it is overlooked: it is hard to do. In the few examples we have of broad smiles in formal portraiture, the effect is often not particularly pleasing, and this is something we can easily experience today. When a camera is produced and we are asked to smile, we perform gamely. But should the process take too long, it takes only a fraction of a moment for our smiles to turn into uncomfortable grimaces. What was voluntary a moment ago immediately becomes intolerable. ...

Smiling also has a large number of discrete cultural and historical significances, few of them in line with our modern perceptions of it being a physical signal of warmth, enjoyment, or indeed of happiness. By the 17th century in Europe it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment – some of whom we’ll visit later. Showing the teeth was for the upper classes a more-or-less formal breach of etiquette. ...

By 1877 the photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge had solved the problem of fleeting movement with his series of photographs entitled The Horse In Motion. As we know from artists’ previous attempts to paint running horses, the horse’s movement was impossible to capture accurately in paint. Thanks to Muybridge’s pictures, almost overnight all the painted horses became transformed from awkward caricature into great galloping beasts. And before you could say ‘cheese’ photographers found themselves able to capture another fleeting thing: the true smile.
--Nicholas Jeeves, Public Domain Review, on why so serious

Friday, September 20, 2013

Cultural differences in schizophrenic hallucinations

In the past few years I have been working with some colleagues at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, to compare the voice-hearing experience of people with schizophrenia in the United States and India.

The two groups of patients have much in common. Neither particularly likes hearing voices. Both report hearing mean and sometimes violent commands. But in our sample of 20 comparable cases from each country, the voices heard by patients in Chennai are considerably less violent than those heard by patients in San Mateo, Calif.

Describing his own voices, an American matter-of-factly explained, “Usually it’s like torturing people to take their eyes out with a fork, or cut off someone’s head and drink the blood, that kind of stuff.” Other Americans spoke of “war,” as in, “They want to take me to war with them,” or their “suicide voice” asking, “Why don’t you end your life?”

In Chennai, the commanding voices often instructed people to do domestic chores — to cook, clean, eat, bathe, to “go to the kitchen, prepare food.” To be sure, some Chennai patients reported disgusting commands — in one case, a woman heard the god Hanuman insist that she drink out of a toilet bowl. But in Chennai, the horrible voices people reported seemed more focused on sex. Another woman said: “Male voice, very vulgar words, and raw. I would cry.”

These observations suggest that local culture may shape the way people with schizophrenia pay attention to the complex auditory phenomena generated by the disorder and so shift what the voices say and how they say it. ...

Meanwhile, it is a sobering thought that the greater violence in the voices of Americans with schizophrenia may have something to do with those of us without schizophrenia. I suspect that the root of the differences may be related to the greater sense of assault that people who hear voices feel in a social world where minds are so private and (for the most part) spirits do not speak.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The environmental and economic costs of a big renewable energy push

It is an audacious undertaking with wide and deep support in Germany: shut down the nation’s nuclear power plants, wean the country from coal and promote a wholesale shift to renewable energy sources.

But the plan, backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and opposition parties alike, is running into problems in execution that are forcing Germans to come face to face with the costs and complexities of sticking to their principles.

German families are being hit by rapidly increasing electricity rates, to the point where growing numbers of them can no longer afford to pay the bill. Businesses are more and more worried that their energy costs will put them at a disadvantage to competitors in nations with lower energy costs, and some energy-intensive industries have begun to shun the country because they fear steeper costs ahead.

Newly constructed offshore wind farms churn unconnected to an energy grid still in need of expansion. And despite all the costs, carbon emissions actually rose last year as reserve coal-burning plants were fired up to close gaps in energy supplies. ...

The cost of the plan is expected to be about $735 billion, according to government estimates, and may eventually surpass even that of the euro zone bailouts that have received far more attention during Ms. Merkel’s tenure. ...

One of the first obstacles encountered involves the vagaries of electrical power generation that is dependent on sources as inconsistent and unpredictable as the wind and the sun.

And no one has invented a means of storing that energy for very long, which means overwhelming gluts on some days and crippling shortages on others that require firing up old oil- and coal-burning power plants. That, in turn, undercuts the goal of reducing fossil-fuel emissions that have been linked to climate change.
--Melissa Eddy and Stanley Reed, NYT, on the problems with renewal energy

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Crack isn't as bad as you think

Long before he brought people into his laboratory at Columbia University to smoke crack cocaine, Carl Hart saw its effects firsthand. Growing up in poverty, he watched relatives become crack addicts, living in squalor and stealing from their mothers. Childhood friends ended up in prisons and morgues. ...

But then, when he began studying addicts, he saw that drugs weren’t so irresistible after all.

“Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.” ...

“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.

“The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Dr. Hart said. “The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”
--John Tierney, NYT, on exaggerating the dangers of crack

Monday, September 16, 2013

Optimal parking strategy

Andrew Velkey, professor of psychology at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University... had a team examine parking behavior in a WalMart in Mississippi.

As explained in the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us):
It seems that the people who actively look for the “best” parking place inevitably spend more total time getting to the store than those people who simply grab the first spot they see…
They observed two distinct strategies: “cycling” and “pick a row, closest space.” They compared the results. “What was interesting,” [Professor Andrew Velkey found], “was although the individuals cycling were spending more time driving looking for a parking space, on average they were no closer to the door, time-wise or distance-wise, than people using ‘pick a row, closest space.’”
--Presh Talwalker, Mind Your Decisions, on the case for parking satisficing. HT: Marginal Revolution

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Janet Yellen is the economists' choice

[Two] surveys of economists conducted by The Wall Street Journal—one of academics and the other of private-sector forecasters—show that many prefer [Janet] Yellen over [Larry] Summers to lead the Fed, even though, at least until recently, many expected Mr. Summers to get the job.

In the survey of academics who specialize in monetary economics, 23—or 82% of the 28 who responded—said Ms. Yellen is the better choice. Five preferred Mr. Summers.

The Journal contacted by email 85 researchers affiliated with the monetary program of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit consortium of academics that doesn't take positions on policy. Twenty eight responded. The bureau itself wasn't involved in the survey.

Ms. Yellen is also the preferred candidate of Wall Street economists. The majority of private-sector economists polled by the Journal this month—61% of the 33 who responded—said Mr. Obama should nominate Ms. Yellen. But the same group predicted by a wide margin that Mr. Summers would get the nod. Mr. Summers has a closer relationship with the president than Ms. Yellen does, and Mr. Obama has made clear he admires Mr. Summers. ...

But the tide of economist opinion—at least those speaking publicly—is against Mr. Summers for a variety of reasons. Some cited Ms. Yellen's collegial style and experience at the central bank as reason for their preference. Others mentioned Mr. Summers's reputation for being overbearing rather than collaborative, and cited his close ties to Wall Street.
--Kristina Peterson and Victoria McGrane, WSJ, on the case for Yellen

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Spontaneous human combustion explained?

The Victorians were particularly excited by "spontaneous combustion." Could a man really self-ignite? Charles Dickens believed so. In "Bleak House," he turned the aptly named Mr. Krook into a pile of ashes on the floor: a "smouldering, suffocating vapor in the room, and a dark, greasy coating on the walls and ceiling."

Forced to defend himself against charges of sensationalism, Dickens pointed to several well-known cases, including that of Countess Cornelia Di Bandi of Cesena, Italy. The Countess had gone to bed on the night of April 4, 1731, a healthy 62-year-old woman. In the morning all that remained of her was a circle of ashes, three fingers and her legs from the knees down.

Dickens defied his critics to come up with a scientific explanation that could account for such mysterious deaths. His challenge remained unanswered for the next 160 years. In fact, the latest recorded case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) happened in February this year, when authorities in Oklahoma discovered the charred corpse of Danny Vanzandt inside his otherwise pristine house.

But scientists have not been idle. Now, finally, it appears that the secret behind SHC has been unlocked. Last year, Brian J. Ford, a research biologist and author based at Cambridge University, set up a series of experiments using belly pork soaked in highly flammable acetone. The purpose was to mimic a dangerous condition called ketosis, when the liver produces toxic levels of ketones, which contain acetone.

According to Prof. Ford, the tiniest spark was sufficient: The pork mannequins burned to ash within half an hour. "The remains—a pile of smoking cinders with protruding limbs—were exactly like the photographs of human victims."

Friday, September 6, 2013

Poverty used to be seen as a social good

Prior to the late 18th century, the dominant school of economic thought saw poverty as a social good, essential for economic development. It may well have been granted that, other things being equal, a society with less poverty is to be preferred, but other things were not seen to be equal. Poverty was deemed essential to incentivize workers and keep their wages low, so as to create a strong, globally competitive, economy. Nor did the idea of what constitutes “economic development” embrace poor people as being necessarily amongst its intended beneficiaries. There was also widespread doubt about the desirability of, or even the potential for, governmental intervention against poverty. ...

[There] was little reason to think that poor people had the potential to be anything else than poor. Poverty would inevitably persist, and was indeed deemed necessary for economic expansion, which required a large number of people eager for work, and avoiding hunger was seen as the necessary incentive for doing that work. ... [Beyond] short-term palliatives to address shocks, there was little or no perceived scope for public effort to permanently reduce poverty. And a world free of poverty was unimaginable—after all, who then would be available to farm the land, work the factories and staff the armies?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Cow tipping is an urban legend

Let's get this out of the way: Cow tipping, at least as popularly imagined, does not exist. Drunk young men do not, on any regular basis, sneak into cow pastures and put a hard shoulder into a cow taking a standing snooze, thus tipping the poor animal over. ...

The evidence against cow tipping is immense, and backed up by both farmers and the laws of physics (more on that later), but the simplest bit of proof we can point to: YouTube.

YouTube, the largest clearinghouse of human stupidity the world has ever known—where you can watch hours of kids taking the cinnamon challenge, teens jumping off rooftops onto trampolines, or the explosive results of fireworks set off indoors—fails to deliver one single actual cow-tipping video. (The one exception is a Russian dashcam video, which shows a semitruck full of cattle overturning—and cows shaking themselves off and walking away.) ...

First off, cows don’t sleep standing up—that’s what horses do. Cows actually spend a great deal of time on their bellies digesting food, as well as dozing on their stomachs. Secondly, cows are naturally wary animals. ...

Wilson says that even after years of working closely with his cattle, they would remain apprehensive when he approached at night. “A group of strangers walking up on them?” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible.”

But say our hypothetical cow tippers got lucky enough to get close to a cow at night. There’s still the matter of the brute force needed to get the cow over. In 2005, University of British Columbia student Tracy Boechler and doctor of zoology Margo Lillie ran the numbers on cow tipping. Their findings? There’s no way one person could tip a cow. Two people? Maybe—but not in real world conditions. ...

A cow has a lot of mass, and you’ll want to move that mass quite quickly, before the cow can react. Which means you’ll need to generate a lot more force. Per her calculations, that would require at least five, and probably more like six pushers.
--Jake Swearingen, Slate, on the biology and physics of cow tipping

The growing cheating epidemic at Harvard

After going public a year ago with their investigation into Harvard’s largest cheating scandal in recent memory, administrators went to great lengths to promote a culture of academic integrity in the Harvard community.

But the results of a Crimson survey of the Class of 2017 conducted last month suggest that some of the newest members of that community are already guilty of academic dishonesty.

Ten percent of respondents admitted to having cheated on an exam, and 17 percent said they had cheated on a paper or a take-home assignment. An even greater percentage—42 percent—admitted to cheating on a homework assignment or problem set.

Recruited athletes were even more likely to admit to cheating—20 percent admitted to cheating on an exam, compared to 9 percent of students who were not recruited to play a varsity sport at Harvard. Twenty-six percent of recruited athletes said they had cheated on a paper or take-home assignment, compared to 16 percent of non-recruits.

Across the board, the incoming freshman class reported higher rates of cheating than did Harvard’s Class of 2013 in a Crimson senior survey conducted last spring. In that survey, 7 percent of graduating seniors said they had cheated on an exam, and 7 percent said they had cheated on a paper or take-home test. Thirty-two percent of graduating seniors said they cheated on a problem set or homework assignment during their undergraduate careers.

The Crimson’s survey of the Class of 2017 generated responses from more 1,300 incoming freshmen—nearly 80 percent of the class.
--Madeline Conway and Cordelia Mendez, Crimson, on using any means necessary